Invoking eminent domain, the Phoenixville (Pa.) Area School District voted to seize the 80-year-old business’ property to add an elementary school and early-learning center. The club’s owners said they found out about the seizure through the newspaper, and were given 30 days to appeal or lose the property. There is some dispute over the current owners’ willingness to sell.
Meadow Brook Golf Club in Phoenixville, Pa., will close in days, but the 80-year-old business hasn’t scheduled an auction or liquidation sale, because the Phoenixville Area School District voted to invoke eminent domain and seize the property for a new school—without informing its owners beforehand, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
The move was unpopular, unusual, and legal. State law only requires notice after eminent domain has been approved. The loss of the golf course won’t reshape the community, impoverish the owners, or set a precedent. It offers a glimpse into a practice used commonly by utilities that need land, but rarely by school districts, the Inquirer reported.
School district officials say the parcel, which will be the site of an elementary school and early-learning center, is critical because of its size, location in the district, and position next to the middle and high schools, allowing the district to create a single campus, the Inquirer reported.
Meadow Brook’s owners say they found out about the seizure through the newspaper. They were given 30 days to appeal or lose their property. Their attorney, Bill Hagner, said even a successful appeal probably would not force the district to change course, the Inquirer reported.
“The thought of one of the school board members or anybody walking into this house and walking through this house absolutely makes my skin crawl,” co-owner Pat Young said last week of the 18th-century homestead that sits at the entrance to the nine-hole course.
School administrators said such a statement is disingenuous. The owners had been willing to part with the approximately 50-acre property, but were unwilling to come down from the $8 million asking price—more than double the most recent assessment, the administrators say. The district offered $5 million for the site, which was the most appealing of 95 tracts considered, administrators say.
The district has valued the land at $3.725 million; the family is seeking its own evaluation. A judge could decide what they are ultimately paid, the Inquirer reported.
The property and house are owned by a group of family members, including 88-year-old Joanne Campbell-Brown, whose great-grandparents bought the land in 1896. Young, her niece, lives in Virginia. Her nephew Bruce Campbell also owns the property and owns and operates the business, which employs about nine part-time workers, the Inquirer reported.
District superintendent Alan Fegley said the family members had solicited offers from developers, and that the district had gone to the negotiating table several times over seven years and that eminent domain had come up, though not recently, the Inquirer reported.
“We made it very clear that the time was running short, and we needed to move forward with an acquisition of ground,” said Stan Johnson, the district’s executive director of operations. “For the family to say that they had no idea, it just surprises me.”
When the district’s school board voted last month, its agenda listed the action as “land acquisition” without naming Meadow Brook. Fegley said lawyers for the district advised the board not to use the term eminent domain, but he declined to say why, the Inquirer reported.
Statistics of property claimed through eminent domain are not kept, said attorney Mike Faherty, the state’s representative to the Owners Counsel of America, a group of experts in eminent domain. But its use is driven by demand. The state Department of Transportation seizes land weekly for transportation projects, and municipalities might consider the move once in decades, the Inquirer reported.
Lawyer Bill Blake, who has written a textbook on eminent domain, said that even in states that require prior notice, listing “land acquisition” on an agenda, “would probably pass. Sometimes it’s quite common for public bodies to not want to give notice that will invite dissension, that will invite people appearing and objecting,” Blake said. “Now, are they trying to hide it? Sometimes they try to not say any more than they have to.”
When a land owner convinces a judge that proper notification was not given, Blake said, it only restarts the eminent domain process, the Inquirer reported.
“What good does it do to challenge it and make them start over? You’re just going to get the same result a few weeks or months later,” he said.
The family is still deciding whether to appeal. Young said she believes that move would only delay the inevitable. In an interview last week, Young said her family solicited offers to sell the property about five years ago, but they had only been willing to part with it for what they considered the right price at the right time. All the offers were too low, she said. Now, she’s angry that the district is using those discussions to say they were “willing sellers.”
“It’s one thing to have something taken away,” she said. “It’s another thing to decide you’re willing to give it up.”
The district hopes to break ground late next year, but expects getting township approvals will delay the opening of the elementary school until 2017. Having the district’s three schools in close proximity will offer benefits from sharing maintenance staff to using existing bus routes, Fegley said. He said the biggest impact will be on education, the Inquirer reported.
“The education value for me is key here,” Fegley said.
If the family does not appeal, the district will take ownership on December 15, the Inquirer reported.
The district would not tear down the homestead, Fegley said, which has been used as an office and is on the National Register of Historic Places, the Inquirer reported.